The professional body for solicitors has said plans for “secret trials” will damage the UK’s international reputation for fair justice.
The Justice and Security Bill returns to the Lords today amid controversy about some of its provisions.
The Bill would allow civil cases to be heard in a ‘closed material procedure‘, with one side barred from hearing the evidence of the other if a judge deems that it would be damaging to national security if it became public.
The Government's plan to allow judges to hear evidence relating to national security in secret in the civil courts to prevent sensitive information being disclosed has been condemned by Lib Dem peers.
The Government has already made changes to the Bill by removing the ability of a Secretary of State to extend the availability of closed material procedures to other courts and tribunals via secondary legislation.
Law Society President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said: “Secret trials and non-disclosure of evidence are potential characteristics of repressive regimes and undemocratic societies.
“Whilst the government rightly takes a strong stance in respect of the importance of the rule of law globally, we fear that if passed, this Bill will adversely affect the UK’s international reputation for fair justice.
“It is our belief that Closed Material Procedures (CMP) depart from an essential principle of natural justice which is that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all of the evidence relied upon before the court, and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.
“In addition, CMPs also undermine the principle that public justice should be dispensed in public and will weaken fair trial guarantees and the principle of equality of arms. These are both essential concepts of the rule of law.”
Ms Scott-Moncrieff said the use of CMPs will also adversely affect the relationship between lawyer and clients.
“It will be impossible for lawyers advise their clients in their best interests if they are not privy to the information being used against them in court and are able to discuss this with those clients,” she said.
“We believe this breaches a fundamental right of defendants in a just society.”
Former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has defended the Bill.
"I do not agree the law works well at the moment,” he told the BBC.
It simply cannot deal with what we've suddenly started acquiring – these cases where people bring claims against MI5, MI6, usually saying they are complicit in some ill-treatment they have suffered at the hands of the Americans or somebody else, and the only evidence that can be used to defend it is evidence from agents who are revealing their sources, or are saying what they know about organisations, explaining what part the British did or did not play."